Montoya set to make NASCAR history

Published 3:49 pm Saturday, July 28, 2007

By By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
INDIANAPOLIS — Juan Pablo Montoya navigated his golf cart through the infield at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, zipped into a parking spot and hopped out.
He didn’t even make it a full step before a security guard stopped him in his tracks and ordered him to move the cart.
Not even an Indy great gets a break at the Brickyard.
Montoya will become the first driver to race in three series at Indianapolis when he makes his NASCAR debut on Sunday. He won the Indianapolis 500 in 2000, his only appearance in the storied race, and made six Formula One starts at the Brickyard.
With an extensive and successful open-wheel background, Montoya is still adapting to driving a full-bodied stock car in this first full season of NASCAR. He’s had his share of struggles and suffered through a nine-race stretch that saw him fail to finish higher than 20th — and four of them were 31st or lower.
He finally broke through with his first Nextel Cup victory on the road course in Sonoma, Calif., on June 24. But because road racing is his specialty, the pressure is still on for Montoya to win on an oval.
Car owner Chip Ganassi, who also fielded Montoya’s Indy 500 entry, thinks his driver is judged against an exaggerated learning curve.
Although the road ahead is long, Ganassi is also quick to point to the success Montoya has already had this season. He’s won three races since making the radical — and sometimes ridiculed — decision to leave Formula One for NASCAR last July, and all three victories came in different series.
He opened the year by teaming with two other drivers to win the prestigious 24 Hours of Daytona sports car event in January, followed it with a Busch Series win on the road course in Mexico City in March and then his Cup victory last month.
Yes, but Montoya still longs for an oval victory to prove he’s arrived. Although he’s got plenty of experience on Indy’s historic 2 1/2-mile oval, he said he won’t be able to carry any of it into Sunday’s race.
That’s led Montoya to seek help from some of the NASCAR veterans on the nuances of the track. He expects the Cup event to be the hardest of the three series.
Although Montoya won as a rookie in his only Indy 500 appearance, he’s a long shot to duplicate the feat this weekend. But it’s not out of the realm of possibility. After all, he’s proved to be a very quick learner throughout his career.
He won the CART title in his rookie season in 1999, and the Indy 500 the next season by leading 167 laps of the 200-lap race. It made him the first rookie to win the 500 since Graham Hill, another Formula One driver, did it in 1966.
That early — and seemingly easy — success made it difficult for Montoya to appreciate the lore of Indianapolis. Now back here seven years later, he’s got a better grasp on the significance of Indy.